Follow California Highway 1 west across the Navarro River. You will pass through a small woodland before reaching the wild Pacific, then the road turns south and hugs the coastline.
Along this scenic two-lane road, Pacific headlands graze horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and lamas. Below the bluffs, hidden coves with concealed beaches appear and vanish with shifting tides. Open grass and meadowlands give way to woodlands and redwood forests. Farms dot the coastal hills. And everywhere, wildlife. From sea to air, nature explodes.
Now and then, you’ll pass through a small town; some are tiny villages, barely a wide spot in the road. But don’t let the size fool you. The Mendocino Coast is sparsely populated. You’ll find small towns with welcoming locals, small businesses, outdoor life, artist studios, performing arts, and fresh, locally sourced food and wine. It’s the way of life here. Open vistas of wild, unspoiled nature and the Mediterranean climate are captivating. Many coastal lands are state, federal, or county parks and preserves.
Come to the edge of the Pacific and visit these small towns on Northern California’s South Mendocino Coast.
Once known as Greenwood, Elk’s 208 citizens make the most of their heritage, natural wonders, and community spirit. Elk is one of my favorite small towns because of the community spirit celebrated and sustained by those in Elk and citizens on the Mendocino Coast.
A Great Day In Elk
An event I look forward to each year is A Great Day In Elk. This lively community event includes parades, food, carnival, contests, and live music. It takes place in August, but there are many other community events like barbecues, art fairs, holiday parties, baseball games, rummage sales, and more throughout the year. Check out the Elk Calendar of Events for more fun.
Greenwood State Beach Visitor Center Museum
Suppose you want to know the history of this once bustling boom town. Head over to the Greenwood State Beach Visitor Center Museum. You can’t miss the white building on the west side of the road in the heart of Elk. This is my favorite museum on the coast. Locals and park rangers are on hand to answer questions and tell a little about the local history of the logging hay days.
My favorite exhibit is the mural depicting the perilous methods that transferred cargo and passengers from shore to sailing vessels anchored in the rocky bay. This small museum is packed with artifacts from life in the boom-time of lumber and fish.
Greenwood State Beach
From the visitor center, follow the trail south to Greenwood State Beach. The coastal views are stunning. There are picnic tables above the beach with a view of sea caves and offshore rocks you’ll never forget.
Pro Tip: Get your picnic supplies from the Elk Store across the road from Greenwood State Beach. Their selection of deli sandwiches is perfect for a picnic on the Pacific.
Manchester, California, isn’t known for its tourist destinations, but the tiny town, population 164, is known for one of the few large sand beaches (including dunes) on the Mendocino Coast.
Manchester State Park
Manchester State Park sports 5 miles of sandy beach, a rarity on the Mendo Coast. The crescent-shaped beach is sheltered from the winds that are often present. Walk the shoreline, build a driftwood sculpture, or explore the dunes. Plan to spend a few hours or overnight in the campgrounds.
Pro Tip: For picnic or campsite supplies, stop at Sjolund Country Market, also known as S&B Market and Supply. No matter what you need, you’ll find it in this general goods, food, and hardware store. The staff will help you whether you need potato chips and beer, directions, or a stake for your tent. Sjolund is located at 19400 S Highway 1 in Manchester. You can’t miss it; it’s the largest building in town.
Try a beach or redwood forest horseback ride at Ross Ranch. Choose the mountains or the sea. Either one will immerse you in the local flora and fauna. Knowledgeable guides lead tours that are safe and family-friendly. Call 707-489-8579 for reservations and directions.
3. Point Arena
Point Arena is one of the larger south coast towns with 437 citizens. This charming town is filled with eateries, art galleries, and a beautifully restored 1928 Art Deco theater.
Point Arena Lighthouse
The Point Arena Lighthouse is still in operation daily. Surrounded on three sides by water, Point Arena is the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific coast. Initially constructed in 1870, it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake in the nearby San Andreas Fault. The lighthouse is also one of the best whale-watching spots on the coast.
Pro Tip: If you plan to wear a hat, make it one with a chin strap. It is always very windy here.
B. Bryan Preserve
B. Bryan Preserve is a coastal secret that you will love sharing. B. Bryan is a wildlife preserve and breeding center for hooved African animals. Take a tour. Self-guided car tours, guided Land Rover tours, and private VIP tours are offered. You will get up close and personal with giraffes, zebras, antelope, and kudu.
Don’t miss the opportunity to feed the giraffes. The gentle giants love interacting with human visitors. Also, take a stroll through the gift shop for a memorable souvenir and to help support the preserve.
Point Arena Cove Historic District
Maritime history, kayaking, fishing, a secret surfer spot, a coffee shop, a lovely inn, and eateries make Point Arena Cove one of Point Arena’s most popular attractions.
Point Arena Cove Historic District is the location of the wharf master’s house and the life-saving station. The beautiful setting is surrounded by cliffs on two sides, sheltering the deep-water cove.
The Yawatahama Sailors Memorial is a heart-tugging monument to 15 young Japanese men who set out for America from Japan in 1913 in a small wooden boat. But, unfortunately, their dreams were never realized. The boat sank offshore of Point Arena, taking all 15 to the Pacific depths.
There are picnic tables where you can watch surfers, kayakers, fishing boats, and waves.
Gualala is the last town on our tour and the largest on the south coast. With a population of just over 2,000, Gualala is known as the southern gateway to Mendocino County.
Gualala Point Regional Park
Gualala Point Regional Park has some of Gualala’s most breathtaking vistas of the Gualala River as it enters the Pacific Ocean. The park has a variety of landscapes, including beaches, coastal bluffs, an estuary, redwoods, a forest, and a river.
Some of the park’s manmade features are serge posts. Artisans from the Sakha Republic of northeastern Russia carved ceremonial posts. The artists worked at the park in 2014 to carve the serge and honor their heritage in the region. Russian fur traders were among the first non-native settlers in the Gualala area.
While at the park, enjoy beach combing, driftwood sculpture, cycling, birding, wildlife viewing, hiking, tent camping, and fishing. There are numerous picnic spots, including one with a fabulous vista and a wind barrier at the visitor center.
Gualala Arts Center
Gualala Arts Center and Theater has been the heart of Gualala’s art community since 1961. The center hosts classical and popular music performances, theater, art exhibits, classes, workshops, lectures, and more. Youth programs are offered. Some classes are drop-in. Stop in for a music or painting workshop.
The arts center is a gorgeous 15,000-square-foot building designed by Paul Styskal. It was dedicated in 1998. Three gardens embrace the building — Mendocino Stone Zone, Frog Song, and Gualala Arts’ Global Harmony Sculpture Garden. Each garden displays art among redwoods, conifers, woodland trees, and native flowering shrubs.
Go to the Events Page for a schedule of festivals, exhibits, performances, and classes. You may also purchase tickets online.
Pro Tip: Many art lovers plan a trip to Gualala for Art In The Redwoods, a 4-day celebration of local art, music, food, and wine.
How To Get To The Mendocino Coast
Air: The closest airport to the Mendo Coast is Charles M. Schultz, Sonoma County Airport. With direct connections from 10 destinations and transfers from many others, this small, easy-to-maneuver airport is in the North Bay of San Francisco. San Francisco and Oakland airports are alternatives.
Wheels: A car will be helpful in getting around Mendocino’s South Coast. There is also public transit, and some folks tour the coast on bicycles.
Why The Mendocino South Coast?
Wildlife, waves, wilderness, and wine. Add to that incredible food, friendly people, and lively arts, and you will be captivated by these four small towns on California’s Mendocino Coast.